Once upon a time when I was a child and the British ruled over us, anything made in England was supposedly the best under the sun. It was with great pride that the owners of English crockery showed their china with legitimate flourish. And how great did the tea taste when served from those tea pots. And if you wore English flannel trousers and an Irish tweed jacket you walked a couple of inches taller.
Then came Gandhi’s clarion call to discard foreign goods and patronize swadeshi. Overnight, the fascination for foreign goods started wearing off. My elders used to tell me stories how responding to Gandhi’s appeal people discarded foreign clothing. The wisest of them all was a successful lawyer of Allahabad. His name was Motilal Nehru. He had made enough money for himself and the next couple of generations from Rani of Amethi in one single case of succession. Instinctively, he realized that the best investment was in Swadeshi. So he discarded his Seville Street suits and put on home-spun khadi –at least in public. And that’s exactly what he advised his brief-less barrister son, Jawaharlal. The rest (as they say) is history. No investment in history, by the way, has ever paid better dividends.
Many a successful barristers-turned-nationalist leaders followed suit. In fact, in Calcutta –that was the name of the town now called Kolkata—successful practitioners at the Bar, donning English suits during the day under imported silk black gowns used to tell their servants before going out to address a public function: meeting ka kapda lao i.e., khadi dhoti and Punjabi (the Bengali name of long loose shirt which in Punjab is ironically enough called Bengali kurta) with an embroidered shawl.
The departure of the British has in no way diminished our fascination for foreign goods thanks to the import restrictions under the Nehruvian socialist regime. If anything, it increased by leaps and bounds (what the understating British call in leaps and bounds.) During the 1950’s, I recall, anything made abroad was looked upon as superior to its Indian equivalent. If a made-in-India woolen blanket was bought in England and brought back to the country that exported it, it was always deemed to be of superior quality. It was to describe this proclivity of my countrymen that V S Naipal coined in his rather languid travelogue An Area of Darkness, the phrase Indians’ craze for phorin (as all UPites and most Punjabis pronounce the word foreign.)
The fascination for "foreign" doesn't begin and end with material goods — from undergarments to umbrellas or cheese to chocolates. Far from that! It extends even to names. Sonia and Monica are favourite names for girls in middle class families. The craze for Sonia, let me point out, didn't begin with Rajiv Gandhi's choice of a Cambridge restaurant waitress as his better half. (She, it is said, picked up the tab for his lunch whenever the bloke was broke. And thereby she won his heart and that of the Congress Party.)
In fact, our fascination for foreign names began with the day we became independent. Unfortunately, however, Edwina didn't catch on despite Jawaharlal's crush for Lady Mountbatten. (I’m told it was entirely asexual though I find it hard to believe.) Most semi-literate rich Indians found Edwina too difficult to pronounce. But when it came to Sonia, even the peasants from the Punjab fell for it. It reminded them of their desi Sohni.
Monica would have caught up as the second favourite but for that long-lingering l'affaire Lewinsky. Rich middle class Indians will never forgive President Bill Clinton for his inability to keep his sexual peccadilloes discreetly under wraps as the wise French Presidents do. (If issued 'green cards' on request, our successful businessmen and, of course, politicians, would have gladly given the American President a lesson or two in cultivating undetectable extra-marital relations).
Regrettably, familiar Western female names like Irene, Paula, Bridgette, Sandy et al, couldn't catch on. Some like Mary and Mary-Anne were plainly unacceptable because of their ecclesiastical overtones. In any case, even country liquor tastes better if poured from a bottle that carries any IMFL label.
When it came to Indian males, all Pals — Punjabis as well as Bengalis — overnight corrected the spellings of their names under the impact of Western education. Ajit Pal of yesterday became Ajit Paul. All Sat Pals changed to Satya Pauls — a telling example indeed of Anglo-Indian hybrid culture i.e., one part Sanskritized and the other, Anglicized. Only a few bhadraloks of West Bengal still cling to their familial Pal. Don’t exceptions merely prove the rule?
Puri was metamorphosed into Purie. (Don’t confuse it with the French potpourri ) Suri became Soorie. And should that be preceded by the prosaic-sounding Arun, change that too to Aroon). Doesn’t the combination sound fantastic improvement on the run-of-the-mill Arun Puri or Kewal Soorie?
I wonder sometimes why on earth we didn’t adopt a set of diacritical symbols for rendering Hindi words into English?
For those still bothered about their cultural roots, my friend M V Kamath has done yeoman's service to launch them on a voyage of self-discovery. He compiled a book of Hindu names to which half-educated middle class parents turn to for selecting a Sanskrit name for their darling son or daughter. Often their search lands them in unsolicited troubled waters. They select a name like Prakshit or Pranab which, unfortunately, Punjabis can't (for their lives) pronounce properly. It is almost impossible for most North Indians, despite all their veneer of half-cultivated modernity, to pronounce two consecutive consonants without adding a vowel with either one or both of them. For example, Ma-ru-ti became Maru-ti and Prakash become Par-kash. (How often have you heard in Hindi films putt-ar for putra?).
Christians have their godfather's name as their middle name. For example, George Kennan, the renowned American cold warrior carried his grand-uncle's name as his middle name: George Frost Kennan. John Kennedy had Fitzgerald as his middle name. So, it is either JFK or John F Kennedy. This posed a problem for our middle class rich, but by no means insurmountable. Ingenious as they are, under the irresistible spell of Western imitation, Sushil Kumar Sethi simply changed to Sushil K Sethi. (Semi-literate Punjabis went a step further by abbreviating Kumar into Kr). Who has the time to know the fact that Indian names have no Western-style middle name nor is there the practice of having a godfather and adding his name to yours. Kumar — whatever it means — occurs most frequently in the middle of Hindu names e.g., Akshay Kumar Kapur or Ashok Kumar Khurana. Instantly, Kumar changes to K. And in the case of Guru's Khalsa, Avtar Singh Dhillon was shortened into Avtar S. Dhillon. His progeny turned out to be more Catholic than His Holiness, the Pope. S for Singh was dropped altogether.
Over the centuries Indian culture has thrived on diversity. Take the surname Mukerji. (I dare not refer to our revered President.) Now you can spell Mukherji in as many ways as there are Mukherjis. And their number runs into lakhs. The same is applicable to Chatterjis and Bannerjis. Can a statistician reader kindly calculate the number of permutations and combinations it is possible to spell Mukherjee?
The same problem bedeviled the South Indian Brahmins—our friends Aiyers and Aiyyangars. There has now and then been talk of standardization of names with literally infinite combinations. Indian Standards Institution was never asked to meddle in this domain.
There are some dare devil liberals who are not daunted by this bewildering confusion. They remind us what the 13-old Julietta Capulet said in all wisdom –or was it merely a teenager’s infatuation?--to her lover in Romeo and Juliet
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; -
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Fortunately, our fascination for the phorin isn’t confined merely to the domain of proper names. It spills over in other areas as well. Let me take another example or two.
Since the Vedic times dahi has been our staple food. No story of the life of Lord Krishna is complete without the narration of his frolics with milk, makhan and dahi. But today, most Indians choose to call it Yogurt because that’s the name common among Americans.
The word yogurt has an interesting history. Early in the twentieth century there was a study sponsored by Institut Pasteur in Paris on who live the longest among Europeans. Surprisingly, it turned out to be Bulgarians. And what was the secret of their long life and their staple diet? It turned out to be yogurt, a Turkish word for dahi. And where did the Turks learn about bacterial fermentation of milk which dahi is. From the Persians who, in all likelihood, ferreted the secret from Indians. So, dahi is back to India as yogurt as a great American favourite.
Remember, dear readers, the lines from the last poem - Little Gidding - of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration.
And at the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Take another favourite—the world’s most consumed vegetable: the humble baingan or eggplant. It is indisputably a native of South India and has been grown since time immemorial all over India in all shapes and colours. From India, it travelled the world over through the Persians and Arabs. (Its Farsi name is badenjan and in Arabic it is called al-baoinjan. The most popular name outside India is aubergine which is derived from the French name auberge. The original Sanskrit name is vatiga-gama.) Now in India it is deemed to have high nutritional value if called by the foreign name aubergine. Baingan is the poor man’s diet.
Fixation on English
Even without living abroad, so-called literate Indians try to inculcate an American accent and, if semi-literate, spell colour as color. They must never say hello. Hey! — even if it is an undisguised cry of anguish in Hindi — is the way to greet each other. Doesn't it sound better because it is American?
Our middle class is also unique in the world for its excessive fondness for the language of its ex-rulers. In fact, it bends over backwards not only to cultivate it but also ensures that its progeny is educated in what are popularly referred to as the English-medium schools. It is with discernible pride that middle class parents tell each other as to which covenant their children go to and which English nursery rhymes have they learnt. Their own language is normally meant for conversing with people like their domestic help and the low level of service cadres they come in contact with.
Back in the 1920s when he launched the Indian Independence movement, Gandhi was appalled at "the idea of parents writing to their children, or husbands writing to their wives, not in their own vernaculars but in English". He decried the canker which had, in his day, "eaten into the society" so much so that knowledge of English was deemed as the only hallmark of education. Gandhi did not by any means decry the learning of the English language. He wrote beautiful English prose. He was worried about how our vernaculars were being "crushed and starved". In his rejoinder to Tagore's criticism of non-cooperation movement occurs that oft-quoted statement of his:
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.
Today, the Indian middle class is doing exactly what Gandhi dreaded the most, i.e. to "live in other people's houses as an interloper, a beggar or slave". And worst of all, they deem it a privilege and a badge of honour.
Who’s there now to remind my compatriots: don’t get blown off your feet; you’ll only land in the deep sea of alienation: disowned by others and cut off from your own roots. You’ve heard of the famous Hindi proverb about the dhobi and his dog. Haven’t you?